Thursday, April 7, 2022

Earthdawn Companion, 4th Edition

 This is a big, dense book that I don't have a lot to say about because it's almost purely practical. It extends the level cap from 8 to 15, adds a bunch of new monsters and magic items, and introduces some very conventional crafting rules that work fine, but have the same basic flaw as most crafting systems - you spend a lot of time cross-referencing charts and trying to squeeze out marginal bonuses to make a roll that is not at all interesting if it fails.

(My current thinking on crafting systems is that if it's something the character is allowed to have, they should automatically succeed at crafting it, with a single roll determining how long it takes to make and how over budget they are. If the character is not allowed to have the item, then making it a longshot on a table doesn't really benefit anyone.)

Books like this are generally my favorite ones to buy, because they are applicable to a wide range of campaigns and have utility even when you're doing experimental stuff like alternate settings or niche campaigns. It was probably, however, a big mistake to read The Earthdawn Companion three and a half years after the core (my word, has it been that long? I am going to be pursuing this goal forever.) Do the new powers fit in well with the core book's progression? Are they balanced and thematic? Does the math make sense? ::shrug:: Um, I guess?

Now, I wasn't entirely asleep here. I noticed that most of the 4th edition Talents seemed to stay within a particular tier (the tiers are Novice, at levels 1-4, Journeyman at 5-8, Warden at 9-12, and Master at 13-15). Because I made a note of it in the 1st edition companion, I was also able to remember the Life Check talent, which warriors get at Journeyman tier (level 6 in 1st edition) and Cavalrymen get at Warden tier (level 15 in 1e). So there are still some gaps between Disciplines with the acquisition of Talents, but nothing quite as extreme. I expect if I did a comprehensive survey, I'd find that a full tier is now the biggest gap. 

Also, the Weaponsmith discipline lost its spellcasting abilities. I'm not too broken up about it, because it always felt like a tacked-on ability that mainly served to allow weaponsmiths to enchant items (because Earthdawn 1e shared D&D's bad habit of tying downtime-scale magic crafting to tactical-scale spellcasting), and now the Enchanting rules are more permissive, with Weaponsmiths explicitly getting Talent Knacks that allow them to harvest True Elements and create Orichalcum, without needing to dip into another Discipline's specialty. However, I am kind of left wondering why these guys aren't staying with the forge, where it's safe. Still, they have some useful buff abilities and what looks like a respectable selection of useful combat powers, so I guess they're in the same nebulous space as Troubadors - B-tier adventurers with a useful secondary skill.

Next up is Talent Knacks. They're useful and feel like a more organic part of your Adept abilities than they did in 1st edition, but if you'll forgive me for being a crusty old-timer, I wish they'd taken more inspiration from the whimsical side of the system. "Improvised Weapon" is back, but unlike its first appearance in Arcane Mysteries of Barsaive, there's no suggestion that a stale loaf of bread is a valid improvised weapon. To be fair, there's also no suggestion that it isn't, but I guarantee that 99% of groups are not going to interpret "The adept suffers no penalties when using improvised weapons" (the whole of the knack's description) permissively enough to allow it. And as if that weren't bad enough, you can't even intimidate inanimate objects any more! Just thinking about all those chairs and wagon wheels and handcuffs that suddenly feel secure doing whatever they want gets me so steamed!

Nah, just kidding. It may all be very practical nowadays, but there was nothing that stood out to me as a dud. Some of them allow you to use new mundane skills with your Talent rating, which is maybe too subtle an effect to be very satisfying, but in terms of Legend Point costs, it's a good deal for PCs. I'm sure it's all deliberately in service to a more serious tone.

All the rest of my notes are calling out things that I liked . . . except one, which calls out something I'm ambivalent about. The new Horrors seem more creatively sadistic than some of the ones I've seen in the past, which I guess is a good thing for people who like the game's horror elements, but it bummed me out a little. "Oh, you've sewn the head of a farm animal onto the decapitated body of a great hero so that you can animate the resulting abomination as a zombie and humiliate it for your own amusement? Well, congrats, it's definitely a dick move. What, the spell ensures that the creature retains some dim memories of its former life? Well, fuck, man. I feel shittier knowing that. Was that your goal?"

Like I said, I'm ambivalent. Knowing the Horrors are gross, petty edgelords will certainly make the more satisfying to slay. But at what cost?

Overall, this is a utility book that felt pretty useful. It was long, but it contained enough creative fantasy stuff that it didn't feel like a chore to read. If I ever run a high-level Earthdawn game, I imagine I'll refer to it often.

Ukss Contribution: My unironically favorite thing in this book is Kellimar's Armor of Rose Petals. It's magical armor that looks like rose petals. Love it.

However, I think this is a case where I have to go with my ironic favorite instead. It's not something that I ordinarily like to do, but the irony levels here are so dangerously out of control, that I question the safety of overlooking this candidate. People who have read the book may have an inkling of what I'm talking about already, but I think I have to begin by setting a mood.

Imagine a fairly long and comprehensive monster chapter. It could occasionally veer into the whimsical (we learn there are Elk in Barsaive because a breeding population was kept in an underground bunker for 400 years), but it was mostly pretty conventional. Some of the monsters were strange. Some felt like the authors were trying to put a distinctive mark on some basic ideas. But overall, it felt like a professionally written book attempting to quickly explain diverse fantasy fauna.

Then there were the Dire Wolves.

I can't possibly do this justice.

"At some point in the past, someone decided they needed a giant wolf which could be ridden.It was probably a dog lover who was upset with all of the different riding cats which were available while there was a distinctive lack of riding canines . . ."

This keeps going for another two and a half paragraphs, somehow escalating in weirdness the entire time. Far be it for me to decry a dizzy, conversational writing style (in fact, it's something I strive for), but this is the only thing in the entire book that is like this. I keep trying to come up with an explanation.

Placeholder text that got left in accidentally? Something slapped together at the last minute, when they discovered the Dire Wolf entry missing? A passive-agressive swipe at a developer or overeager forum thread that hassled them about riding dogs?

I suspect there's no real explanation. Someone probably just wrote a gag first draft and it so amused the team that they decided to run with it. If it means that Barsaive's Dire Wolves become a meme, well, that was always something that was possible anyways.

In honor of this reckless game design, Ukss will also have rideable Dire Wolves. They will also be a meme.


  1. While the specific origins of the dire wolf entry are shrouded in mystery because very few interesting things survive being explained, I can offer that wasn't the first appearance of my text. It was actually in a blog entry:

    1. I enjoyed all of those entries, though I was a bit puzzled about how elk could survive 400 years underground with a viable breeding population.